Towns want AG’s opinion on responsibility for unclaimed corpses

Dr. James Gill, chief medical examiner

Office of the Chief Medical Examiner

Dr. James Gill, chief medical examiner

Connecticut’s cities and towns are seeking an opinion from Attorney General George Jepsen on whether communities now must take responsibility for disposition of unclaimed human remains.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) and the Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST) also released a legal opinion Monday that asserts most communities can’t be forced to handle these arrangements.

The analysis also warns of an unintended side effect of the policy announced last month by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME): It would shift responsibility for all unclaimed bodies tied to OCME cases to the town of Farmington, where the office is located.

“I have the utmost respect for Dr. Gill,” said CCM Executive Director Joe DeLong, who was referring to Dr. James Gill, the chief medical examiner. “He is a gentlemen and a complete class act. He is doing everything in his power to help us find a solution. He has just been put in a terrible position.”

The “terrible position” involves an 11 percent cut to the OCME budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the legislature imposed significant cuts on many state agencies to close a nearly $1 billion hole in the 2016-17 fiscal year without increasing taxes.

Gill had warned legislators during a budget hearing in mid-March that his office’s caseload had grown by about 50 percent in recent years and that any additional cuts probably would result in fewer services delivered.

And his office notified municipalities last month that it no longer could afford several services it had provided, despite not being obligated to do so by state law.

The OCME asserts that state law makes cities and towns responsible for final disposition of unclaimed decedents in their jurisdiction, but this has not been enforced for years but rather handled by the state.

Given that, and the budget cuts, two changes will take effect on July 1:

  • For unclaimed decedents at scenes that are not OCME cases, those remains no longer will be transported to the chief medical examiner’s office, and it is the responsibility of the town or city of death to handle these arrangements.
  • For unclaimed decedents that are OCME cases, the community where the death occurred must dispose of the remains after the office has completed its examination.

“We suggest that municipalities work with the local police to develop a plan to transport and store these remains as the police are usually at the scene of death,” Gill wrote in an email to cities and towns last month, estimating this would involve fewer than 100 decedents annually statewide.

The municipal advocacy groups asked Gill to request a written legal opinion on the matter from the attorney general’s office.

Gill could not be reached for comment Monday morning.

“Any legal advice our office may have provided to a client agency would be subject to attorney-client privilege and, therefore, we would be unable to comment,” Jaclyn Falkowski, spokeswoman for Jepsen, said Monday. “Our office has not received a request for a formal opinion from a client agency on this matter.”

CCM and COST officials reacted almost immediately after the office’s May announcement, saying this was state government’s responsibility and adding that most communities were not familiar with the requirements and protocols for storage, transportation and disposition of unclaimed human remains.

The two agencies retained the Murtha Cullina law firm to analyze the matter.

In an opinion released Monday, attorney Kari L. Olson argued that state law does not expressly make municipalities responsible for unclaimed decedents not tied to OCME cases.

The law does allow for cities and towns to petition local probate courts and — with a probate court order — handle the remains. But that is not a mandate, she wrote.

And for unclaimed decedents in OCME cases, the law says this is the responsibility of the town “in which the body is lying,” Olson wrote, quoting the state law.

But this actually applies, Olson added, to the community where the body was autopsied. And since the OCME lab is in Farmington, the state’s interpretation would have the unintended side effect of requiring Farmington to handle all of these cases.

“It is in the interest of all parties and the great state of Connecticut that this matter be brought to a reasonable resolution,” CCM and COST wrote to Gill. “Our associations and the respective towns we represent appreciate the important and highly regarded work of your office. … In the meantime, we respectfully request that the OCME continue to provide the necessary services as referenced in your email until a more permanent solution to this unfortunate circumstance of which your office has been presented is found.”

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